Beckerian Discrimination in Philosophy's Credit Economy


Let me explain the above image to you. An anonymous account on twitter made it, this account largely dedicated to saying very right wing things of a certain racist sort about philosophy and being annoyed at those who do not. The idea is that the words on the screen characterise my thinking and work. In other posts they clarified that they had seen me say I am interested in and intend to develop ideas from Africana philosophy, and from this drawn the conclusion (or perhaps further bolstered their confidence in the conclusion) that I am low IQ and wrong about everything, and also that the pictured quote would well summarise my view. 

Now far be it from me to dispute that I am low IQ and wrong about everything, and even if I did that is surely exactly what someone who is low IQ and wrong about everything would say! So I shan't dispute the characterisation here. Readers can judge for themselves whether it is plausible that I think nothing of value has been done by non African thinkers. And if one wanted my general advice on being black in philosophy I would simply refer back to my previous open letter on the matter.

But it did get me thinking about a little toy hypothesis I have been mulling on occasionally down the years, and which made an esoteric little appearance towards the end of that letter. The question I am concerned with is: why do philosophers leave credit on the table? Let me explain what I mean by that.

I work on the reward structure of the academy. I have blogged about it before. What matters to for my purpose here is just that in order to advance an academic career one must be credited by one's peers with doing good work, and this is often in particular felt as an incentive to publish novel work in esteemed journals. If one regularly publishes in journals philosophers consider good then, the market being what it is, there is no guarantee of career success - but if one does not do this it becomes very difficult indeed to make it. There is hence some rather strong incentive for people looking to stay in academia to seek out relatively easy means to gain access to academic credit.

Next, I think there is some clear credit advantage to being seen to combine novel combinations of ideas, ideas which are perhaps familiar when taken individually but not often brought to bear on one another. This point is both widely understood intuitively by academics and also backed up by some sociological work. People look for a "new angle" on problems in ethics by drawing on resources in metaphysics and epistemology, and do so precisely in the hope that this will let their work stand out enough to both get published and noticed subsequently to that.

Finally, I think it is well known that there are large traditions of philosophy which are relatively rarely deployed by people who work in academic philosophy departments (people most often mention Chinese, Indian, and Africana). They are hence aware that there is a ready made set of arguments and concepts out there which could well be given the above treatment.

And yet, well, they don't. The areas for the most part remain pretty niche. Despite their being manifest success cases of doing that! I am evidently one of them, and Jason Stanley by his own oft stated account was able to move into political philosophy in large part by deploying this tactic. It does, in fact, work to draw on these traditions and use ideas therein to develop thoughts on topics wherein they can be combined with work in traditions philosophers are more familiar with. So why not?

I think there are three commonly stated reasons for this when the matter comes up, two of which I think are simply false and one which might be true but which I am going to set aside. The first which I think has no real chance of being true is the idea that work in these traditions is just in fact much harder to read or deploy without subtle appreciation of the broader historical or cultural contexts they emerge from. (This could happen because the ideas are somehow intrinsically worse, and so it is harder to draw out something worthwhile from them.) So spending some of your time reading and trying to develop or apply ideas from here is more costly than doing it from analytic metaphysics or early modern European political philosophy etc. And, well, it's just not true. Take it from someone who reads in all these areas. The difficult level is not really different. Of course if one wanted to become a serious scholar of Zhu Xi's philosophy then yes there are all these high barriers to entry - but this is not so different than if one wanted to become a Rawls scholar, and certainly no different than if one wanted to be a scholar of some early modern European thinker. And this is not what we are talking about here, here we are simply thinking of drawing from their work (and in fact drawing from the secondary literature those scholars produce) to advance projects elsewhere. This can be done as casually or intensely as one would do with any other type of philosophy. The second is just a small variant on this which is that whether or not it is harder it is perceived to be such and that puts people off - but I think that this just could not be a stable equilibrium, as a few adventurous souls would inevitably prove the lie and encourage more entrants.

The third possibility, which I think could be right, is that I massively overestimate the basic awareness of the existence of those traditions. People are in fact literally just unaware that if they paid attention to thinkers from China or India or Africa they may learn of ideas/concepts/arguments which they may profitably engage with. I can imagine my social circles being filtered in a way that misleads me on just this point, so I will just own that this is a genuine possibility, and say that I am at least interested in a rival hypothesis, without having good reason to prefer the hypothesis I am interested in to this one. Suspending judgement is ok!

I am interested in the possibility that there is something like Beckerian discrimination against ideas in philosophy. Becker's theory of discrimination is familiar from economists and there are plenty of write ups available, here's one which I will just quote the statement of the basic idea from:

Becker’s 1957 book introduced the first economic model of discrimination. In this model, employers hold a ‘taste for discrimination,’ meaning that there is a disamenity value to employing minority workers. Hence, minority workers may have to ‘compensate’ employers by being more productive at a given wage or, equivalently, by accepting a lower wage for identical productivity... ... Assume that some members of the [majority] group are prejudiced against [minority] workers and demand a premium to work alongside them. This is similar to the case above, and leads to segregation. This is similar to the case above, and leads to segregation.

 So the analogue would be that people have a `taste for discrimination' against ideas drawn from the aforementioned traditions. Something has to have a higher expected return on credit for it to be worth engage with than an otherwise (in some vague sense) equivalently credit worthy idea would have to be for people to want to advance their career through it. People in some implicit sense prefer a lower chance of gaining academic credit and thus the source of career success than they would to associate with some low-status-tradition's ideas.

Working out the details on this would be difficult and I am not going to attempt it here. There is some oddity in applying the theory to ideas or traditions rather than people. Also what does equivalently credit worthy mean? But I think it might be worth it! It seems quite possible that one could draw on the tradition of Beckerian modelling in economics to draw out the consequences of this claim, and then see whether it seems like a plausible model of what's going on in philosophy. That might be interesting?

In any case, what got me thinking about this is work with the excellent David Kinney on racism in what we (rather optimistically!) call "transitional societies". These are social orders which once had widespread and well known de jure racial bigotry. This is gone, but there are still clearly some racial disparities in how norms and rules are enforced, so it's not like there is de facto equality. Under these circumstances one can be unsure about whether the scenario one faces now is likely to be one in which the remnant racism is going to be especially pertinent, and this (we argue) can have some interesting consequences. What strikes me here is that perhaps something similar is going on - philosophy can't be so racist that one will just be stonewalled if one draws from traditions associated with low status minority groups. Otherwise my career wouldn't make sense! But perhaps something about the rather more hazy and confused current status of things leads people to none the less be wary of associating with ideas from these traditions, which then in practice becomes a kind of Beckerian discrimination against those ideas. 

Could be! Could not be. I think one shouldn't dismiss such things too quickly, and when one sees that at least some people will come out and just say that Africana philosophy can be characterised and dismissed as the work of "low IQ" people one simply must wonder how widespread such attitudes are, even if usually in more subtle forms. There is, as ever, more work to do.


  1. Not that this excludes other explanations, but I also think comparative stuff -- 'novel combinations' -- at some point became viewed as low status as such (not in all quarters or without exception, but enough to be a deterrent), regardless of the traditions being combined -- people also don't use the Stoics or Plato as much in contemporary contexts as you'd expect. (There are neo-Aristotelians and maybe the odd neo-Stoic now but that's a bit different.) Maybe because it's hard to pull off at the literary level, and often comes out lumpy in some way.... Something specialization and technicality as indicator of seriousness and elite training something something.

    1. Ah yeah could well be! But I don't think all the examples of this have to be explicitly comparative. E.g. Philip Pettit managed to do quite well by reviving work on classical Republicanism and applying it to contemporary debates in philosophy. He didn't quite do this in comparative mode, though - he just studied the work and then brought its insights to bear. I think this could be a way of getting the advantage there without that (bizarre!) reputational hit.

  2. Thank you for this thought-provoking post 🙏

    As an outsider, I'd like to propose a less academic but—I think—equally important explanation: embarrassment.

    In every sphere of human activity, some things are regarded as being embarrassing, and you're regarded as—or feel—a bit weird for pursuing them. Some things are a bit out there but still possible to dress up for polite society if you can do something sufficiently cool and useful with them (see eg. the change in attitudes over time wrt academic research on various aspects of sex work); others feel like discussing the merits of astrology at an AMA panel debate, with serious and distinguished physicians shaking their heads at you in disappointment. They're all your father.

    It's embarrassing to dig around in the muck of non-western mysticism (ie. all non-western philosophy—what else do they have?); you get dirty, and people will question your judgement and maturity, because there's obviously nothing of value to be found there. This risk of coming across as weird and immature or improperly calibrated can crop up in all academic disciplines; we all tell our students there's no such thing as a stupid question, but, deep down inside, most of us are afraid that there really are stupid questions—and we don't want to reveal our inadequacy by asking those questions.

    There's also the embarrassment of feeling like a poseur when trying to butt into a field or conversation where you don't belong and have no social capital to leverage—not to mention the embarrassment of feeling like you're swooping in to Euro-/Anglosplain non-western philosophy, set in stark relief against a background of colonial subjugation, exploitation and humiliation.

    I propose that academics leave credit on the table for the same reason people leave other things on the table—it might be embarrassing to reach for it, like the last cookie at a Swedish fika. It's a phenomenon that might be better understood through an analysis of social cues rather than through economics or even racism—and better addressed through social interventions, such as modeling more permissive attitudes (eg. through elite signaling). As with our politics, we often choose our work as a means of choosing (or being chosen by) our friends. A possible solution: redpill academics into believing that embarrassment is optional and/or that you can be friends with embarrassing people :)


    — Protik

    1. Really interesting thoughts, just wanted to thank you for sharing and letting readers of the blog have the perspective to consider. Cheers!

  3. I don't have a theory, but a sort of data point: In 1994, when there wasn't a ton of work on testimony in the analytical tradition compared to now, a book came out called "Knowing from Words: Western and Indian Philosophical Analysis of Understanding and Testimony" edited by Chakrabarti and Matilal. It had a lot of big-name and biggish-name Anglo-American philosophers on testimony, and also a lot of Indian philosophers working in Indian traditions, and IIRC in at least one case trying to bring them together. (I think it was comparing the Nyaya view of testimony to Coadyish non-reductionism, that we have a presumptive justification for believing something a speaker says.)

    And the work on Indian philosophy seems to have had very little impact on analytic work on testimony. I can find a more recent article comparing Nyaya epistemology to nonreductionism, but it and its citations seem to be more in the study of Hindu philosophy rather than analytic epistemology. I'm not sure why there was no uptake here.

    (One possible thing is that the book was pretty hard to find as I remember. I didn't dive into the Indian philosophy partly because I had to get my dissertation written and working with the Indian philosophy did seem like it would be more work than the analytic papers were for me at the time.)

    1. Ah interesting, and yes no doubt pertinent! Rather suggests some reason to doubt my sense that this is a route to credit has a fairly high chance of success. Maybe I am just generalising too naively from the cases that come to mind, forgetting the base rate of all the things that don't work out.

  4. This is super interesting. (The post, not the miserable tweet.) Seems right that even a slight "taste" for the Western canon could lead to lots of bias. Reminds me a bit of Schelling on segregation.

    I also wonder if there could be an epistemic version of this kind of thing. Suppose you think, wrongly, that you have worse chances of career success if you study Chinese philosophy than if you go read Kant. If lots of people have the same belief, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as fewer and fewer people choose to work on the topic, and Chinese philosophy looks less and less like a path to career success. It would be an "information cascade."

    Anyway, just speculating. Thanks for the post!

    1. Ah yes I agree, and there is some connection to Schelling segregation no doubt! You might be interested in Cailin O'Connors' work who has looked into related phenomena quite a lot. This paper especially might be of interest:

  5. Thanks for the great post!

    Insofar as this is a sociological issue, here’s a reaction (whether it’s defensible, I don’t know, but it may have sociologically explanatory value): The risk of (charges of) appropriation is a deterrent. More generally, the risk of eventually doing something that someone will consider racist (whether justified or not) and get you in hot water is a deterrent. Engaging the material in an egalitarian manner, which would open it up to all the criticisms and even snarky or insulting comments that competing schools in, for instance, metaphysics, hurl at each other sounds highly risky. This renders wading into, say, Africana philosophy, as doing something more in the spirit of music appreciation than serious philosophy—not because of the material, but because of the (perceived) constraints on how one engages the material. This would involve the material being treated—not as having low status—but as having sacred status. Such things make going down this road unappealing. Perhaps a cynic would blithely steer a safe and profitable course—I imagine an economic model such as Becker’s would be particularly open to this expectation—but most people are not cynics. Of course, even if all of this is sociologically accurate, it would merely capture one factor that contributes to the current state-of-affairs. Anyway, that's my 2 cents.

    1. Ty for the kind words! It could be something like that is going on, some perceived risk that there is a higher cost of errors here. The thing is that is, to me, similar to the above in that I just don't think it's credible, and so I would expect entrepreneurs to risk it and then expose the lie and thus lead to a sort of gold rush phenomenon. If anything I think (cynically!) it's sort of the other way round - there are less people to notice your errors in these sort of cross cultural applications, so you can get away with more.

    2. Picking up on Unknown's comment, I've gotten the sense from wading into history of philosophy scholarship, and particularly Chinese philosophy scholarship, that historians of philosophy can be suspicious of, or hostile to, philosophers riffing on their historical faves without getting into the weeds of context, arcana, etc. (Admittedly, what follows is largely anecdotal, a priori sociology, but hey that's a start!) I once heard a virtue ethicist in my department complain that "there's a lot of Aristotle Lite out there," and in the Chinese philosophy literature I've seen Sinologists complain about philosophers, analytic philosophers complain about pragmatist or postmodern treatments of Warring States philosophy, etc. Of course, if there's lots of Aristotle Lite out there then looks like the historians' complaints haven't had much purchase. But when it comes to thinkers and traditions with less mainstream clout, especially, there might be a disincentive among conscientious early-career philosophers to avoid the pitfalls of riffing--especially when riffing may end up being (or being seen as) pernicious appropriation, Orientalism, etc. And if the historical specialists in some non-mainstream area are suspicious of riffing, then they may be less given to banding together with non-specialist colleagues to break into the mainstream.

    3. Oh no doubt specialist scholars always get grumpy in just that way. But the sad (for them!) fact is, as you note, nobody cares about their grumbling and it doesn't really affect one's chances in the race for credit. David Lewis' versions of Humeanism did him quite well prestige wise, despite the fact that Humean scholars blanche at the association. My sense is that this situation isn't really different for scholars in these other areas - they would complain, but since they are often housed in non philosophy departments their complaints would have very little social impact. Just speaking from my own experience re how scholars of Chinese philosophy within academic philosophy departments have greeted me, that little group seemed positively delighted to have anyone from outside want to play with them!


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